Target the breeding ground of corruption


Reforms offer hope of a cure for our chronic disease – but only if they block self-serving politicians from high office

Thailand suffered another blow when it slipped in the latest World Corruption Index (2013), scoring just 35 points out of 100 to rank 102 of 177 nations. Corruption is old news here, of course, but the plunge is worrying given that it indicates a steady increase in the number of graft cases.

In the previous ranking, based on 2012 figures, Thailand was 14 places higher up the list.

We are not in free-fall, but this is still a major slump for a country with a democratically elected government. Eyebrows rose further because communist China scored better than Thailand. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, how on earth can Thailand be more corrupt than China?

Has Thailand’s democracy embraced graft and allowed it to flourish? The Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) seems to think so. It reports a steady increase in corrupt practices over the past four or five years, especially in politics. This goes against the global trend. In most other democratic countries, corruption is on the decline.

The TDRI findings echo a January survey by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, which found that politicians are the major players in corruption, followed by state officials and then private firms. Together they create a vicious cycle, drawing others in. Our culture of corruption is now deeply rooted in both government agencies and local administrations.

The TDRI expressed hope that reforms will bring “cleaner” people into politics and help reduce the siphoning off of taxpayers’ money.

Corruption has become a chronic disease for Thais, spreading unchecked despite being frequently diagnosed. We have to consider why the pathogen is so successful here. While most observers agree that politicians warrant a large share of the blame, social norms are the virus’ breeding ground. “If I don’t do it, others will,” tends to be the thinking, an assumption that’s infectious, spreading from the top down: “If those in power do it, why can’t I?”

The lack of consequence is another motivation. The few in high office caught for graft simply demand to see the evidence, and the higher their position, the more arduous it is to pin them down. The accused turn defence into offence: “Why pick on me? It’s a conspiracy against me.” Faced with such angry counterclaims of victimisation, graft-busters often back down.

Seeing how easy it is to escape punishment, more people join the cycle. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the number of cases is rising each year and that the graft-fighters are losing the battle. National Anti-Corruption Commission spokesman Wichai Mahakhun summed up the scope of the problem when he said that investigating all extant corruption cases could continue into his next life.

How many lives, we wonder, have been sacrificed to cover up corruption in Thailand? How many people suffer unknowingly as a result of graft? Yet there is some hope: at least the TDRI and UTCC have agreed on the central root of the problem, and it is politics. Now the reform process offers a potential antidote. If we can ensure that those in high office are honest, officials lower down in the pecking order would find it harder to get away with corruption.

If people are good, the health of the system becomes of secondary importance. If people are bad, no system can save us from their self-serving actions.


First published: The Nation,  March 14, 2014